Like many Columbia Basin College students, Amjad al-Sharkarji and Shwe Zin have high expectations for their future.
The 19-year-old Amjad wants to become an electrical engineer and is looking at attending Washington State University Tri-Cities or a university in Seattle.
Shwe, 18, is a Southridge High School senior in the Running Start program and plans to become a pediatrician.
Both have been selected as the college's All-USA Academic All Stars for the 2013-14 school year. They'll head to South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia today to be honored at a banquet. Each will receive a $2,500 scholarship from Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society that organizes the contest.
"They both are totally unabashed," said Terry Marie Fleischman, adviser to the honor society's CBC chapter and adjunct faculty member. "The sky's the limit."
But knowing how Shwe and Amjad and their families fled political oppression to seek a better life in the U.S., arrived in the Tri-Cities with very little and worked hard to establish themselves makes their success and goals that much grander, the students and others said.
"It's crazy to think I'm going to be a doctor," Shwe said. "I grew up in a hut. I played in the dirt."
Shwe's family came to the U.S. in 2005 from Thailand where they'd been living in a refugee camp. They fled their homeland of Burma because Shwe's father was involved in a student anti-government group, she said. He died after the family's arrival in Thailand and her mother remarried. Shwe was 9 when the family came to the U.S.
"I just remember being scared," she said of arriving at a California airport where there was no translator available.
Amjad's father, an Iraqi, fled his home country for Syria in the late 1980s and started his family there. The Syrian government wouldn't recognize his dad's engineering degree earned at an Iraqi university and wouldn't grant him or his children citizenship, he said. That prompted the family to seek political asylum in the U.S. in 2000 when Amjad was 4.
"I didn't know much when we first came here," he said.
Upon arrival in the Tri-Cities, Shwe's mother worked as a housemaid and her stepfather biked to his job at Walmart each day because they didn't have a car. Amjad's father couldn't get his academic transcripts so he first worked as a janitor at Energy Northwest. He is now a mechanical engineer there.
The young immigrants didn't speak English and Shwe spent her initial grade school years in a transitional classroom.
"I remember being amazed," Shwe said. "It was like a movie. Everyone had their own desk."
Amjad and Shwe said when their families arrived in the Tri-Cities, there wasn't a strong cultural community to support them. And after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Amjad said his family faced some prejudice because of their Middle Eastern heritage.
"There weren't a lot of Muslims here when we arrived," he said.
Those challenges didn't hold the students back, though. Amjad said his parents pushed him to do well in school and that was reinforced by seeing his father take classes at CBC to become a draughtsman. He graduated from Chiawana High School last year where he was in Running Start and enrolled at CBC to finish two associate degrees.
Shwe said her parents received the equivalent of a sixth-grade education in Burma but they also stressed academic achievement.
"My biggest motivation is to make my parents proud," she said.
About 20 students applied for the award this year, said CBC spokesman Frank Murray.
While Phi Theta Kappa organizes the contest, non-society members are eligible but all must meet specific criteria, such as having at least a 3.5 grade-point average, be enrolled in school and on track to earn an associate degree.
CBC President Rich Cummins selects the college's two winners, who are now eligible for a national award.
Fleischman has gotten to know the students since becoming the Phi Theta Kappa adviser in the fall, she said. Amjad is active in honor society, coordinating quarterly "study days" on campus so students can meet with their professors ahead of finals and has worked to set up a knowledge bowl competition on CBC's Pasco campus.
Shwe hasn't been as involved but only because she has family commitments and is also involved in activities at Southridge High, where she's captain of the gymnastics team.
Both students have impressive academic resumes. Amjad wants to use the engineering degree he intends to earn to better the world through technology, while Shwe wants return to her native Burma to treat children as doctor.
"They are totally unscathed by what they had to go through," Fleischman said. "Those are the skill sets that are going to take our country into the future and make the globe a better place."
Despite the circumstances that brought them here, Amjad and Shwe said they view the Tri-Cities as home, with Shwe adding that her childhood in Burma and Thailand "feels like a different lifetime."
Their success hasn't come easily, they said, but that's maybe part of the point, they said.
"If there's something you want, there's a way to get it," Shwe said.
-- Ty Beaver: -582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald